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Join Date: Jan 2004
Location: The Wild West
Local Time: 02:32 AM
Religious Ed. rebellion
MONTREAL -A new religion course taught in schools across Quebec was intended to improve inter-cultural understanding, but so far it is generating deep division as hundreds of parents pull their children out of class.
A high school in Granby, Que., has in the past week handed one-day suspensions to seven students boycotting the Ethics and Religious Culture course on the grounds that it violates their freedom of conscience. In nearby Drummondville, a couple will be going to court next spring with a constitutional challenge to the mandatory course.
The course "is forcing children to learn the content of other religions," Jean Morse-Chevrier, president of the Quebec Association of Catholic Parents, said yesterday. "Therefore it is the state deciding what religious content will be learned, at what age, and that is totally overriding the parents' authority and role."
The new course is the final step in a secularization of Quebec schooling that began with a 1997 constitutional amendment replacing the province's denominational school boards with linguistic ones.
A 2005 law changed Quebec's Education Act and its Charter of Rights to eliminate parents' right to choose a course in Catholic, Protestant or moral instruction, and the changes came into effect last June.
The curriculum, which is followed by children from Grades 1 through 11, gives greatest emphasis to what it terms Quebec's religious heritage -- Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and traditional aboriginal spirituality. But it also covers the full spectrum of world religions and belief systems.
Stephanie Tremblay, a spokeswoman for Quebec's Education Department, said school boards across the province have received and rejected more than 1,400 requests from public-school parents seeking to have their children exempted from taking the course.
The dissenters represent a small minority of the one million children enrolled in public schools.
"The course was designed with an eye to respecting the freedom of conscience and religion of all students," she said.
"It is not a religious instruction course. It is religious culture. We introduce young people to religious culture like we introduce them to musical culture. The goal is to better know and understand others."
For Diane Gagne and her 16-year-old son Jonathan, evangelical Christians in Granby, the course teaches values that run counter to their religion.
Jonathan has been sitting out the course this fall, which is taught for about two hours a week. Last Friday he was told by J-H-Leclerc secondary school that he had been suspended for the day.
If he continues to skip the class, school rules could eventually lead to expulsion.
Ms. Gagne said her son remains determined despite the suspension. "He told me, 'Mom, I am still standing, and I'm going to keep standing and fight this to the end.' We're prepared to go right to expulsion."
Jean-Yves Cote is the lawyer representing the Gagnes as well as the Drummondville family that has launched a court challenge.
He said the Granby school is the only one in the province that has taken such a hard line against students boycotting the course.
"All the parents are doing is claiming a right that is recognized, the right to educate one's child in conformity with one's religious or philosophical convictions," he said.
The Drummondville case, scheduled to be heard in May before Superior Court, is expected to test whether the new course infringes constitutionally guaranteed rights. Mr. Cote said the issue could end up before the Supreme Court of Canada.
The new course is also mandatory in private schools, and Montreal's Loyola High School has initiated its own court challenge. Parents of more than 600 of the Jesuit school's students asked to have their children exempted from the course, and all were refused by the province.
Paul Donovan, the school's principal, said much of the curriculum is already taught at Loyola, but not in the "relativistic" way favoured by the Education Department.
He said the course does not ask children to distinguish between right and wrong. "What it essentially says is that religion is just, 'You like tomato soup and I like pea soup, so don't be all offended because someone likes tomato soup. It's really just a matter of preference,' " he said. "Religion could be Wiccan or Raelian or any of the new movements or atheism or agnosticism."
So far Loyola has refused to teach the Ethics and Religious Culture class. "I can't tell my teachers to teach that course in conscience. I can't," Mr. Donovan said.
Are these parents really so afraid of comparative religion?